OOPS: Whose nest is this?
EXPECT NOTHING. Unfortunately we can’t resist viewing the NOAA and Weather Underground sites to check the forecast. The Wunderground site displays a graph that illustrates the fluctuations in air temp hour by hour. We get our hopes up for a sap run when we see it freezing by 9pm and climbing to 40F. by 1pm the next day. Expectations flourish. We line up crew. Trouble is, the weather stubbornly resists forecasting. Even if it were to cooperate with the forecast, the trees have their own mind and run when they will, which this week is NOT MUCH. We call the crew to take their boots off and stay home.
Even worse, the forecasts this sugar season have appeared ideal a week or so out. These long-range forecasts are just mirages; they vanish like the water on the road up ahead. Still, we skip online from site to site, shopping around.
It has been particularly hard to expect nothing this past week because it is the last week of March and the sap is supposed to run now. It just is.
WEATHER (From the log book):
3/28 Rained most of yesterday, temp 33/34. Collected enough sap today to fill lower tanks only. Temp into 40’s with filtered sun and sporadic rain.
3/29 Discouraging run today, temp just over freezing day and night, clearing late in day, getting colder.
3/30 (No longer from the log book): Storybook sugaring day. Bluebird skies, northwest breeze, chickadees singing Phoebe, Phoebe, dirt softening to mud, snow melting off steep banks. It was the sort of day that resonates through the decades for all of us who have childhood memories of gathering buckets or of boiling.
3/31 Temp range today was 30-32F. By evening it was snowing hard.
HOW’S IT RUNNING? Except for Thursday the 30th, NOT MUCH. On Thursday the sap streamed but it didn’t splash in the tub as it does in the ultimate form of run, the “washing machine” run. By the end of the day, some of the buckets by the house were overflowing.
BOILING STATUS: We had “baby boils” on Tuesday and Wednesday and again today.
SAP SWEETNESS: 2.4%, the sweetest yet. The bucket sap, being from old trees with mature crowns, tasted twice as sweet as the tubing sap, but no one measured its sweetness with the sap hydrometer.
MUSIC TO BOIL BY, or, Partial Playlist for Today’s Hyggelig Boil:
Sweet Honey in the Rock
The Chvrches (Scottish synthpop) (called The Sundays by some of the crew)
Instrumental classics like Dueling Banjos
Elfin Love Tribe (dreamy Celtic harp, etc.)
It seems the younger the crew the more they like the hit music of the ’60’s and ’70’s. I gained some insight into this today when Sarah nostalgically mentioned that her father sang Paul Simon songs to her as a child. ( My father sang You Are My Sunshine to me.)
This week’s VOCABULARY LESSON is excerpted from a story, brought in by crew member Ana, of a sugarmaker on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula whose ancestors were some of the earliest sugarmakers in North America. The language belongs to the Anishinaabee, a collective term for the indigenous people of the Great Lakes region, including the Ojibwe.
NAADOOBII, To Gather Sap
Joe Rose, a Bad River tribal member, pays close attention to the weather during March. He waits for sunny days with snow melt and freezing nights. These conditions signal the movement of maple sap (ziinzibaakwadwaaboo) and the time to work the sugar bush (iskigamizigan). The importance of this season is reflected by the Ojibwe words, ziinibaakwadoke-giizis and onaabani-giizis, which refer to March as the sugar making moon and Apri as the maple sap boiling moon, respectively.
[Since the language is traditionally oral and not written, spelling it out in our alphabet is possibly akin to spelling out bird song. Note the double-vowel system which I don’t know enough about to comment on.]
The blog’s food correspondent Maple Trout Lilli writes:
First, a little history on this very-unique-not-often-used spice we’ve pared with maple syrup. Did you know that:
In ancient Eastern medical traditions, cardamom could cure a sore throat, teeth and gum infections, congestion, tuberculosis, stomach, kidney, and lung problems, and also be used as an antidote for spider and snake bites. It’s been long noted, and more recently in lab studies, to successfully treat urinary tract infections and gonorrhea.
We’ve established that we love the sweet flavor of maple with anything savory, right? Well, here cardamom is partnered with one of my favorite ingredients for glazing salmon, maple syrup. The syrup and spice make a deliciously complex coat for the fish — with smoky paprika and cayenne pepper adding a hit of heat. It takes minutes to prepare and is absolutely delicious.
MAPLE CARDAMOM GLAZED SALMON
- 1 pound wild salmon filet, de-boned
- ¼ cup maple syrup
- 2 teaspoons ground cardamom
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- pinch cayenne pepper
- Salt and pepper
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a small bowl combine maple syrup, cardamom, paprika, cayenne and a bit of freshly ground pepper. Whisk until mixture is smooth. Adjust to taste.
- Place a large cast iron skillet into the oven and allow it to heat up for about five minutes.
- Arrange salmon filet on a cutting board. Remove the bones (if your fishmonger hasn’t already). Cut into portion sized pieces. Brush syrup mixture evenly over the salmon filets. Place in skillet (skin side down) and cook for 10 min. Brush more glaze onto the salmon and cook for an additional 3-5 minutes until the salmon is cooked to your liking.
QUICK UPDATE: We await the next sap run.
Maple Open House
twirled sugar-on-snow onto their wooden sticks
bit into dill pickles
slipped closer to the bonfire
sipped sap coffee while chatting with someone they knew from somewhere else,
slid down the snowbank again and again
scrambled back up on all fours
rubbed the smoke out of their eyes
clung to their mothers (just the few), feeling too shy to try the sugar-on-snow,
While everyone walked, skipped, or drove away
from the celebration
from the Sunday outing
from the rite of spring,
The buds on the maple trees
Thus begins a week-by-week study of the buds from one branch of one sugar maple tree living below the garden, within sight of the sugarhouse. It is still a child; its branches are low enough to touch and observe closely. In this drawing the buds are still tight.
Ana is new to the crew this past week. Everywhere she turns she sees inspiration for a sketch or a painting.
WEATHER: First it snowed for three days, then the sun came out and drew everyone outdoors for three shimmering days, then the air warmed enough on the first day of spring to wake up the trees, then the clouds moved in along with snow and plummeting temps, and today the sun returned and the temp rebounded to the high 20’s.
HOW’S IT RUNNING? The sap ran on Monday the 20th. We expected the run to choke off Monday night, but it didn’t freeze; the sap ran poorly all night and drizzled all day Tuesday. So far this season there have been no “gusher” runs.
BOILING STATUS: We boiled on Tuesday. On Wednesday we needed to boil for a few hours to finish up. It was the coldest-ever day of boiling (10 F.). While cleaning up at the end of the boil, water and snow on the cement floor froze to a hazardous veneer of ice.
The front pan has four divisions called troughs. The sap enters the front pan on one side and works its way back and forth until it reaches the final one, called the finish trough, where a person stands and monitors the density of the sweet (a noun denoting the almost-syrup) and opens a gate valve every few minutes to draw, or drain, the thick-enough-to-be-called-syrup into a pail, in our case a stainless steel pail that holds four gallons.
Every few hours, we switch sides: We reverse the flow of sap in the pans, with a little plugging and unplugging, so that the sap flows into the front pan at the finish trough and works its way back and forth to the new finish trough on the opposite side of the pan.
If the person who is drawing needs help she calls out, “Pail!” Whoever is nearby walks over to the pail, picks it up, and carries it to the dumping station, a tub from which the syrup is pumped through the filter press and into a tank.
Now, fill in the blanks using these vocabulary words:
IF YOU DO THAT, YOUR NAME WILL BE M.U.D.
On Tuesday evening, neighbor L., who walked up for a visit and soon got to work scrubbing, cheerfully responded to A.’s cries of _____ again and again. Pick up, carry, dump; pick up, carry, dump. Then A., who was _______, decided to ___________;. Immediately after a ____ , she filled up the pail again with ________ that was meant to be dumped into the new ____________.
A. plugged this, unplugged that, picked up the scoop and hydrometer and walked around to the other side where she plugged off the new ___________ and scooped as much sap out of it as she dared without risking burning the pan. Meanwhile, L. picked up the pail of ______ and did what she always did: Pick up, carry, dump. Only this time the pail was supposed to be dumped into the new ___________, not the ______________ where, if pumped into the tank, the ______ would ruin the density of the evening’s syrup.
When A. discovered the _______ in the _______________, Chief of Operations called out to J. to quickly loop it back into a bucket before it got pumped. Phew, that was a close one.
L. said in her bright manner, “If my grandfather were here he would say what he often said to us grandchildren when we were little, ‘If you do that, your name will be M.U.D.'”
A mere two hours later during clean-up, A. gave the go-ahead to the crew to change the papers in the filter press. Goo and gunk oozed out of every plate all over the floor and under fingernails, mucking up the all-important holes in the plates. If they had just waited until morning, the niter goo would have consolidated.
A.’s name was M.U.D.
QUOTE OF THE DAY, uttered by an amused visitor, “So the sap runs through a state-of-the-art tubing system and reverse osmosis machine and it ends up in a PAIL?”
SUNDAY NITE AT THE MOVIES:
Sugarmakers made the most of the Big Thaw of February, and this past week COO and the Hutchins brothers (who grew up climbing on our wood pile, next worked crew for many years, and now sugar in Caledonia County) made the most of the Pi Day Snowstorm. Here is Ben Hutchins skiing Michigan Slides, an exposed ledge in nearby Michigan Valley.
SUNDAY CAPTION CORNER:
What do you or your shadow self see?
QUICK UPDATE: The sap DID run for a few hours this afternoon in the March sun (high 39 F.).
One of our new crew members, Sarah Bailey, is today’s guest blogger. She writes:
Thriving (surviving) in the Sugar House
When the weather is right the hard work of the day bleeds well into the night. The wood needs stacking, the filter needs changing and has anyone checked the density lately? If the run lasts for a few to several days there is a noticeable weariness to the crew, not often in spirits but in sheer exhaustion. The lack of sleep becomes evident when the norm of clear instruction fades into grumbled suggestions and you catch a glimpse of someone resting their eyes (head) at one of the freshly filled warm barrels.
The work, being weather dependent, is in constant flux. One week may mean 13 hour days for a few days in a row and the marked lack of laundry and showering that goes with that, and the next week may consist of a lot less syrup stuck to your clothes or hair and a lot more skiing, sleeping in, and visiting with friends. While the weather may be unreliable, there are some patterns in sugarhouse operations that are consistent enough to count on. Among those certainties is the knowledge that when things are running smoothly it’s best to stay on your toes as you await the next issue.
Amidst the hectic happenings, with workers swirling around in much the same patterns as the steam leaving the cupola, you can stay sane and learn to thrive in the sugarhouse by remembering a few tricks.
Save yourself a lot of elbow grease and note that boiling hot water is far more efficient at dissolving sugar than scrubbing.
Boiling water/sap/syrup/steam can and does actually burn skin- keep your gloves handy.
Syrup on the floor is slippery, use caution and a squeegee.
While you’re enjoying the maple steam facial, keep a water bottle near by and make sure to stay hydrated.
In addition to staying hydrated, you’ll feel better at the end of the day and work more efficiently if you’re well fed – luckily Audrey is a wonderful cook and everything tastes better with fresh maple syrup.
Seriously, don’t knock it till you try it! I’ve even witnessed hot syrup being poured over a cold tuna fish sandwich while the brave soul smiled in culinary bliss.
Indulge more than just your sense of taste – take in the aroma, color, the feeling of hot steam and cold air, and the feeling in your body after a long day of hauling pails from here to there.
Take the time to appreciate the process; unravel the richness of maple sugaring history.
There are many other things to keep in mind while working in a sugarhouse, and many practical tips that will make the work run smoothly, like remembering to open/close the right values before and after cleaning tanks, but in order to truly thrive (or survive) working at a sugarhouse you must simply carry with you abundant pluck.